Our February 13th gallery crawl began at  Howard Greenberg Gallery on 57th Street, in the magnificent Fuller Building, itself a fine example of Art Deco architecture.  We passed beneath the limestone frieze by sculptor Elie Nadelman, and headed up to the gallery to see an assortment of photographs from India.  There are three separate exhibitions on view, Betsy Karel: Bombay Jadoo, Sacred Sight, and Mary Ellen Mark: Indian Circus, all united by the theme of India . (On view until March 14th.)

Off in a side area is a very small selection of photos of Indian circus performers by Mary Ellen Mark.  You could easily make the mistake of bypassing the unobtrusive portal to this strange and impassioned world.  Mark’s camera seems to disappear, and the viewer steps right into her place, experiencing with a direct jolt the intensity of connection with her subjects.

Betsy Karel‘s “Bombay Jadoo” and the assortment of  photographs in the main gallery by ‘Anonymous’ to not-so-anonymous artists like Margaret Bourke-White and Henri Cartier-Bresson fully rounds out this large range of images that effectively transports one to India old and new, conveying little of the misery, and much of the jadoo (A Hindu term for magic or wonder-working).

From there, we saw Judy Pfaff‘s show Paper, at Ameringer Yohe Fine Art. [Exhibition closed Feb 21.]  An affinity between sculpture and drawing is often remarked upon, and that was clearly evident here.  These pieces exist somewhere in the realm between the two disciplines, leaning closer to relief sculpture and assemblage or collage, but none of those are fitting labels.  They are works on/of paper, but you can find just about anything else amidst the layered and cut paper, including  found images, ink, wire, artificial flowers, coffee filters, plant stems, fishing floats, and umbrella parts.  The colors range from earthy to day-glo, and as wild and chaotic as these pieces may be, one doesn’t lose confidence in Pfaff’s ability to orchestrate the entire composition.  It’s easy to envision how these pieces would evolve organically in the studio with the artist deliberating over each decision to build the complete whole, which deceptively looks as if it burst forth into being all at once.

Pfaff’s dynamic works encompass the complex experience of the natural world around us.  Within each piece one can find beauty and decay, messiness and fine detail, chaos and order, fear and delight — all the stuff of life.   Pfaff comes across as a fearless, mature artist who obviously loves her creative process — one of discovery and adventure.  Viewing this work, you feel you get to take that exciting ride along with her.

Next was Kori Newkirk’s show at The Project [up until March 20th].  There was something very affecting about being in The Project’s space.  Rounding the corner from the large, open main room, one turns to the left and enters the more intimate gallery spaces.  There are less than a handful of pieces in this show–three  drawings in the small front room, and then a lit, sculptural piece in the darkened back space.  The sensitive, seductive lines of Newkirk’s drawn self-portraits are done using bleach on pigmented paper, a sort of reductive process that appears paradoxically both ghostly and very physical. For such a spare show, Newkirk’s work fills the space with a silent forcefulness that has remained strong and persistent in memory.

At the front of the gallery, there is a display of literature on some of the other gallery artists.  I picked up a catalogue on Julie Mehretu, and although Meheretu’s accomplished drawings/paintings are much more tightly worked than Pfaff’s, there seemed to be a visual connection, a language in common between these artists of different generations.

Jack Sal at Zone Contemporary Art, [closed Feb 28th].  This show presented a varied cross-section from small, naturally weathered lead plates that look allude to landscapes and natural phenomena, to minimal works on canvas of gesso, ink, and silk surgical tape.

As noted in the gallery’s press release, Sal is an under-recognized artist in the United States, in spite of his long, accomplished career, including a series of site-specific installations in Europe, collaborative projects with William Wegman and Sol Lewitt, and inclusion in public collections such as MoMA. In the front of the gallery, one was able to get a nice sense of this artist’s journey by spending some time with a wonderfully installed wall of dozens of widely varied smaller pieces, hung salon-style.

We ended up at MoMA to see Rebus (closed Feb 23), curated by artist Vik Muniz, and while there, also stopped in to see the show of work by Marlene Dumas, both of which have been widely reviewed.  A “rebus” is a combination of visual images and symbols that piece together to add up to another meaning.  As a kids’ brainteaser, you might see a letter, then a plus sign, then an image that would add up to an unrelated word or phrase.

Muniz was the 9th artist in MoMA’s Artist’s Choice series to don the curator’s hat and hand-pick this show from the museum’s vast collection.  The pieces included are not just culled from the art collections, but also include many design items, such as a piece of bubble wrap, that may leave viewers scratching their heads.  But scratching your head is indeed part of Muniz’s intention, as this show is one big brainteaser.  You are intended to follow through it  as chronologically installed, and make a connection between each piece you see and the one situated before and after it.  This makes for some fun, especially if you’re visiting with friends.  Who can guess the connection first?

I feared Muniz’s concept would turn out to be a bit of a one-liner, leading one to dash away as quickly as one could figure out the connection,  rather than stopping to really consider the pieces in the show.  “Oh, it’s yellow, and the glass piece that looks like an egg-yolk is yellow, and next to that is a timer, like you’d use to time your egg, and next…”  But besides providing an easy in for looking at the work, it also provides a context to think about the ways art connects to our world, the ways it evolves from our world, the ways things are connected, and ultimately to the basic concept that making connections between things is a key to understanding.  The show’s first piece is the tremendous 1987 homage to Rube Goldberg in film by Peter Fischli and David Weiss called The Way Things Go, and it’s hard to go wrong with a start like that!

Countering the amusement of Rebus, the Dumas show, Measuring Your Own Grave, (closed Feb 16), was a roller coaster of ups and downs.  As the title would imply, pretty down.  Dumas has no shortage of technical skill, obvious in her ability to conjure human features out of  aqueous washes.  Although one of our gallery crawl gang described a room lined floor to ceiling with portraits as “100 paintings of village idiots,”  the portraits stood out as the strongest, and perhaps most honest, work in the show.  The sexuality or morbidity of much of her work, which has certainly fed the astonishing trajectory of her status as art-celeb, feels manipulative, cynical, and not particularly interesting no matter how technically adept.   The shock value Dumas seeks falls way short of that a painting like L’Origine du Monde by Gustave Courbet (warning: not safe for viewing at work!) still has, or at least half of the work by Egon Schiele (also not safe for work!).

Dumas seems to be present, her work at its best, with the riveting series of portraits.  There, she seems to be searching for something, and strange visions emerge from the depths of  her inky washes.  The more narrative paintings on sex, death, and racial politics, mostly fall flat, coming across as cold and calculated.  Of note, she works from photographs, and that safe distance from the realities of the flesh she’s depicting may be part of the problem.  It’s easy to draw a bead between some of this work and Andres Serrano’s photographs, which probably does not work in Dumas’ favor either. Painterly bravado aside, this show was a stark note on which to end the day’s gallery crawl thinking of the comparative difference in compassion and tenderness exuded by the work of Mary Ellen Mark, with whom we started (who has made pains to live amongst her models, including prostitutes), and Marlene Dumas (who runs from them).  But maybe those differing views are the whole point.

[Images above:  Contortionist with Sweety the Puppy, Great Raj Kamal Circus, Upleta, India, copyright Mary Ellen Mark , 19″ x 19″, 1989, Platinum print, printed later, courtesy Howard Greenberg Gallery; Benares, India 1956, copyright Marc Riboud, gelatin silver print, 40 x 30cm, printed later, courtesy Howard Greenberg Gallery; Konya, 2008, copyright Judy Pfaff, Layered/cut paper, Joss paper, found images, ink, wire, artificial flowers, wire, Crown Kozo paper, umbrella parts, framed: 94 1/2 x 94 1/2 inches, courtesy Ameringer Yohe Fine Art; Detail of drawing, copyright Kori Newkirk, bleach on paper, courtesy The Project Gallery; White/Wash III, 2008, copyright Jack Sal, courtesy Zone Contemporary Art; Yellow from the series Line, Form, Color, 1951, copyright Ellsworth Kelly, colored paper, 7-1/2 x 8″, The Museum of Modern Art; Yolk, 1999, copyright Kiki Smith, Multiple of glass, overall: 3/4 x 1-1/2 x 1-1/2″, The Museum of Modern Art; Timer  Model No. 152, 1960, copyright Rodolfo Bonette, ABS polymer, 2-3/8″ x 4-1/2″, The Museum of Modern Art; Installation view of portraits by Marlene Dumas at the Museum of Modern Art.]